It has been difficult to turn on the news over the past couple of weeks without seeing some mention of business rates. Periodically the “rateable value” of non domestic property are re-assessed by the Valuation Office Agency and these data are used as the basis upon which business rates are set. These charges represent one form of business taxation.

The lengthy spacing between the past and the current valuations has been a contentious issue, and during this time many many rateable values have changed. Furthermore, with any change there will be winners and losers, with business rate falls or rises respectively. Much of the media attention has been around relief for those businesses (especially small) adversely effected by sharp rises.

How much open data can we expect in the future?

With all the hubris in the press surrounding the publication of the new valuation outcomes and speculation about their likely impact or relief, this seems to have missed a critical issue surrounding what data are available to look at these issues, to whom and for what purposes…

At the last valuation, the Valuation Office Agency made rateable value outcomes available as Open Data, although in a format that made the bulk download of these data difficult; it was possible to search for a property individually on their old website.

However, with the release of the latest rateable value data, these have now been made available as a bulk download; BUT, with a much more restrictive licence; and explicitly stating “[a]n open government licence does not apply”.

The current version of this is available here: https://www.tax.service.gov.uk/view-my-valuation/terms-and-conditions

Within the license itself for the eagle eyed there are also some apparent contradictions – a stated purpose of the data includes:

“enable anyone to exercise their right to view rating assessments in the compiled rating lists”

Yet, there are some very restrictive definitions of who a user composes, which are not “anyone”.

Are we stifling academic research or business activity?

A departure from an open government licence is problematic for both research and business.

As an example, we sought clarity from the VOA whether a simple application of creating aggregates from the data (e.g. say floorspace within a zonal geography) and publishing these in much the same way as we have for other data products would be permissible under these new licences, which was denied. Measures such as these could be very useful at a local level for a variety of academic research and would go beyond those aggregate data that do exist, but are at local authority scale. Potentially for local planning there might be some relief within the license with a user definition including:

“relevant authority, defined as the local authority in whose area the hereditament is situated”

However, this might be argued as counter productive for data analysis within any regional governance structure that extend beyond the local authority boundaries (e.g. a city region) or for any cross regional benchmarking / national comparison. A widening to academic activities would offer crucial knowledge transfer opportunities which in times of constrained local government spending and a desire for academic impact does seem like a missed opportunity for resource / value sharing.

For those businesses who have invested time in developing products or services around data that have previously been granted an open licence (and this is applicable to all open data); license changes may create significant issues. It is entirely possible that there will be companies who have built products based on the old VOA open data who will now no longer be able to supply these under the new license.

Cover image from Flickr.